A childhood in nature

Jean Tweedle, of Ponteland, Newcastle, reflects on her memories of a childhood in nature

The beautiful article by Mike Pratt in The Northumbrian issue 180 highlighting the benefits of the younger generation’s exploration of nature brought back memories of exciting nature walks and outings in my childhood and teen years. My sister and I were extremely fortunate in spending several years living in a tiny hamlet in Scotland. Quite nearby there were fairly extensive woods which were a magical kingdom to enter. My father, who was an excellent artist, was equipped with sketch book and pencils and we had our own little pads too. Every day, in all weathers during the holidays, we were “off to the woods”.

Beneath our feet were leaves of all exquisite colours and design in varying stages of decay and to find a skeleton leaf was a huge special treasure. We made collections to be drawn and identified and pressed into files. All the while there would be beautiful birdsong up in the canopy above us, and we would be quiet for a while to listen and identify. Back home, we would search through our nature books and bird books and tick off those we had experienced.

The author Enid Blyton had published four little books entitled Through the Year, and each featured a season. I still have them, and they are delightful and so very helpful for the young. Our birthday and Christmas gifts often contained a book on birds, wild flowers, etc.

Autumn was one of our favourite seasons for our forays as there were so many fascinating seeds to find. Conkers of course were always a super trophy, but we loved ash and sycamore, hazel and beech. Specimens would be collected and stored all labelled for future use. Also, along the tow path of the canal – another very exciting area – there were wild raspberries and strawberries and enormous blackberries, according to the season.

Winter was sometimes too harsh for ‘collections’ to be made, but there would be mysterious tracks of creatures leaving intriguing paw prints, and many tiny imprints of various birds. These would be noted in our notepads and identified later. Our father, who was a keen observer and naturalist all his life, was very knowledgeable on all our finds, but quite often became tantalising and mysterious as he encouraged us to hunt through our reference books, and this did help us to observe very keenly and accurately.

Spring of course was full of the fun of trees and undergrowth coming to life and we studied the outline of trees in winter for identification prior to full leaf. Because then our sights were set skywards, the subject of clouds arose. We would stand gazing on an appropriate day in a clearing to watch the various shapes and to learn their names. As children of cause, we would see amazing shapes of lions, cars, dogs, etc.!

Summer, and with it the bounty of fungi, wild flowers, grasses, lichens and of course midges. We each had a ‘switch’ with us to wave these little biters away. But of course, Scottish midges are notorious for moving around in huge clouds. Being nibbled all over was a price we paid for our enthusiasm, but somehow it never daunted us! Hot and tired, we would trail back home and if we were having a particularly rewarding day, we might see a huge black furry caterpillar, which was a really exciting highlight.

Any really wet day which kept us indoors, we got out our treasures and books and were totally absorbed for hours. No computers or smart phones; we were cosy and comfy beside an open fired range where wonderful scones etc. were baked in a rambling old house 300 years old. I have travelled frequently by train on the East Coast mainline to Scotland, which is a magnificent train journey wit wonderful coastal views and the Forth and Tay bridges to cross, which are still exciting. I look round and everyone including children are staring at some device and not at all interested in what is going on around them. Even our journeys when little were informative, as we made lists of the stations en route, guessing at which cross was a certain colour in the fields and spotting perhaps a deer or unusual breed of sheep. And lately of course there are the ‘new’ bridges over the Firth of Forth in addition to the amazing old rail bridge.

To this day, I am so grateful for the privilege I enjoyed as a child, as I am still using the observational skills and nature knowledge learned then. Also, I am so conscious that for city children, although there are parks and green spaces, they simply can’t compare with the country. And of course, during the Covid lockdowns one can’t help but feel deep sympathy for children and adults restricted to flats and city homes.